The woman in the picture was the man’s wife, George surmised. Just because of the composition of the photo and the way he said “her”. The point is not her.
George had been married three times. He and his first wife, Jenny’s mother, planned to inhabit the world together, a small world shaped by small town ideas. He was nineteen and drunk with youth, and he thought marriage was like having a girlfriend but without having to sneak around, without having to quickly fuck in the backseat of cars or in the fields of corn. (They had grown up together in southern Illinois, outside of Carbondale.)
Of course, that was stupid. But that was how he had seen it back then. They’d moved to Chicago and gotten an apartment, and he’d taught rudimentary math and reading to women through a Job Corps program. The women were there by court order. They painted their nails in class. They got carried away when he declared that California was a State like any other and not a foreign country. The women did not want to learn. Most of them had what their social workers would call “innumerism.” They ran in a circle around George, getting him to sign various forms for their court appearances and parole officers. He quit before too long, but the truth is he took a lot from these women, in terms of how they spoke. What they talked about. They bent the language like glassmakers, bending and molding it for custom purposes. It was then that he started taking notes, writing song lyrics, with the encouragement of Jenny’s mother, who believed in him.
He wrote a bunch of songs and sold two of them. He went to Nashville to meet with music publishers. He had a little work to do, but more importantly, he had an idea of the kind of person he wanted to be. George was staying in accommodation at the rudimentary weekly rate. He went to clubs every night, spotted songwriting legends like Ray Price and Harlan Howard. It was 1974 and director Robert Altman was in town, shooting the movie “Nashville.” George and a few young musicians and songwriters more or less lived off the food they stole from the homemade tables on Altman’s film set. Jenny was six months old. He did not return to her and her mother.
He saw Jenny sporadically, took her on trips here and there, when she was old enough that she didn’t need much attention. As a teenager, she stopped talking to him. She didn’t give a reason. After her mother’s death from cancer, she became more open to her business. His mother was “Mommy”. He was “George”. If he had to describe the relationship, he would say it was more like two friends.
This photographer he had picked up in eastern Arkansas had asked him to stop by from time to time, which is how George realized that the man had a taste for the Atlantic quality of certain scenes of roadside, of what had been and was not longer. A closed service station. A barricaded snack bar. A cinder block building with faded writing: “Watermelons, red meat, yellow meat.”
“You don’t see yellow-fleshed watermelons much anymore,” the photographer said. “And nobody calls it meat.”
He told George that he built stereo equipment as a hobby. Photography was not a hobby, he says. George said he writes songs as his hobby. They talked a bit about music, and the man started describing the technical aspects of tube amplifiers, which George couldn’t follow. When the man saw that George was lost, he backed off, changed gears.
“I met this guy doing it all on his own,” he told George. “I mean, he had a speaker hooked up to his stereo. He only listened to mono records. Driven a BSA Gold Star, single cylinder. Lived alone. Everything was ‘one’!”
“You could say I’m like that too,” George said. “I mean the ‘one’ part.”
“You know what Pascal said.”
“I don’t know,” George replied. He never had a problem with his education, never thought knowledge would make him look better or that he should pretend to have more than he had.
“A king alone, without distractions, is a man of misery.”
“So it’s good to be alone,” George said, summarizing what he took away from that aphorism. “As long as you have your distractions.”
The man said that sounded about right.
When he had arrived at Jenny’s house in Nashville five years earlier, after the awkward confrontation at the woman’s apartment and sleeping in her car, he had been a day late. He explained that he was delayed because of the storm. He himself did not care if people were late, even by several days. He worked with musicians. They lived at their own pace. He thought Jenny was the same. He told her about the old woman in the tight pants at the bar, because it was a funny story. And the young woman who fired him when he said he didn’t want to burn her with a cigarette, because it was a weird story. (She hadn’t fired him that abruptly – it was more like she had ruined the hospitality – but he was simplifying for Jenny.)
He thought Jenny would appreciate his reports on the road. But Jenny said she didn’t want to hear about it. “I don’t need this,” she said. “This is bullshit. I’m trying to let you into my life. This is something you haven’t earned. And I’m sitting here waiting for you all night while you’re apparently in a bar to dance with strangers.
“I’ve done far worse things with strangers than Dance“George said, and he smiled, hoping he could help him relax. He and Jenny, they were cut from the same cloth. Both were hikers and columnists. People who were trying to condense things – complicated and painful things – into verse and chorus. Something like that. But Jenny isn’t laughing.
Instead, she went to the kitchen and took a hammer from a drawer. She got out and slammed it into George’s windshield, which fractured where she had hit it, in a wide web radiating from the passenger side. She certainly knew how to use a hammer.
“It won’t even hurt you,” she said. “Because you don’t care. About everything.”
He knew how to be silent. She returned. He followed her. They sat down and she started talking. She told him that for years she had wondered when he would decide to meet her, but that moment had never come. She started talking about her childhood. His mother worked full-time as a secretary at a farm equipment wholesaler to support them. It was in Carbondale, where her mother had returned from Chicago when Jenny was still a baby. At sixteen, Jenny got a weekend job with the local utility. She rode in a van with a crew. She was the only girl. She was already a tomboy by then. One afternoon, the crew decided to make her a real girl, to show her that she was one.
When she started going into detail about what happened, George found he couldn’t listen. Can’t hear it. He got up. Of course, leaving was not the right thing to do. But it had to.
“See? See?” she shouted after him. “I knew it. You have your stories, and I have mine. I don’t want to hear your stories, just like you don’t want to hear mine.
He left his apartment and drove that stupid car with its partially broken windshield to Austin. It was their last interaction. Back home, he could have taped the windshield, to be cheap, and to preserve the damage as some kind of stubborn penance, but he ended up having it replaced.
George meandered from western North Carolina to Tennessee. He no longer picked up strangers after the amputee and the young hiker. He ate alone on the barbecue.
He considered calling Jenny to let her know he was coming. But if he did, she might say, don’t come.
He arrived in Nashville at 10 PM He knocked on the door of Jenny’s house. He heard a baby cry. He felt confused. Was this the right place? He was sure it was. His memories of that street, of the dead grass and the little alley leading to a brick triplex, of Jenny’s only door that faced the front, and of what had happened between him and Jenny were vivid. , although he tried to forget them.
A woman answered, holding a newborn baby. A man stood behind her. They showed no reaction when he said Jenny’s name.
“We’ve been here three years,” they said, “and we don’t know your friend.”
George said, “She’s my daughter,” and they looked at him and he felt their judgment.
He went to a bar where people were drunk and rowdy and he remained estranged and a stranger. He slept in a motel and the next morning drove around Nashville feeling dizzy. As if her daughter was lost there. But she was not lost. She was a woman of forty and she was living her life. She could be anywhere.
He went to a few studios on Music Row where people might know his daughter. No one had heard of her. Some of these people knew him, at least vaguely, were familiar with his work as a songwriter. George began to feel that Jenny had asked them not to tell her.
He left Nashville. He drove along the Kentucky border, traveling west. It was the same route he had taken when he had stopped in this town at a bar to shelter from the storm, but in the opposite direction. He returned to this city. Retracing his steps was one of his habits, a way of navigating his life.
This time there was room in the only motel. He paid for a room. It was late afternoon. He walked down the street to the bar and ordered a beer. As he had ordered, he wanted to ask the bartender about the young woman he had met there. He remembered her name – Merle – because it was unusual. But he hesitated, thinking maybe the bartender knew about Merle’s tastes. She had probably asked all the guys in the bar to burn her with cigarettes. But then he moved on.
“Does Merle still come here?”